Venus: The Top Ten αγγλικά/ αρχαιότητα
Submitted by Sean Williams

Venus’ beauty became the obsession of an empire. Borne of her Greek cousin Aphrodite, the demur deity became synonymous with love, luck and fertility – and her sultry curves were worshipped in countless statues, reliefs and paintings of antiquity. Endless epithets still seduce throngs of open-jawed snappers the world over – but which sculptures have wowed just that little bit more over the centuries? Heritage Key puts glasses to lips in quiet contemplation, as we take you through the top ten Venuses of all time.

10) The Aphrodite of Frejus (early 1st century BC – end of 1st century AD)
To Paris to begin our artisan odyssey; the magnificent Louvre, to be precise – for that’s where you’ll find the Aphrodite of Frejus, a carefree and consummate incarnation of Venus Genetrix, the epithet of the goddess who stole Caesar’s heart and inspired a empire-wide cult, centred on Caesar’s opulent temple in the Roman Forum. The 1.64m-high, Parian marble creation was discovered in 1650, in the French coastal village of Frejus, and is thought to be a Roman replica of the Greek original which inspired Caesar’s obsession. She found herself in the Louvre from 1803, when she was nabbed by Napoleon’s men during the Revolution.

9) The Venus of Arles (end of 1st century BC)
Back to the Louvre again, the Venus of Arles stands triumphantly; a 1.94m Hymettus marble masterpiece which may or may not be a copy of Praxiteles’ (get used to the 4th century BC Attic sculptor’s name in this piece, he makes more than the odd appearance) Aphrodite of Thespiae. The statue holds a state of regal repose, her naked torso countering the salutation of her arms. The original Aphrodite would have held the shield of her lover Ares – Rome’s Mars – in which she admires her not altogether unappealing reflection. She was discovered in 1651 in the southern French town from which she takes her name, beneath its impressive Roman theatre, in several pieces. Yet the king at the time, Louis XIV, commanded his able royal sculptor Francois Girardon to smooth Venus’ chest and add an apple, in recognition of the Trojan Judgement of Paris. Her flimsy robe appears to be gently falling from her waist in a sensual twist which stresses her femininity during the act of vanity. A fine piece and alleged forebear to our number one.

8) The Esquiline Venus (c50 AD)
Breaking from the status quo, the Esquiline Venus (of which there currently two, in Rome’s Capitoline Museums and the Louvre – the latter of which only retains its body from neck to knees) is a smaller-than-life size statue, the replica of a 50 BC bronze which is reputed to have been made by Pasiteles, a prominent sculptor of Caesar’s court. She stands a seemingly underdeveloped deity, with small breasts and narrow hips. However she still retains a certain bulkiness which seems to undermine her supposed beauty; at least by her contemporaries’ standards. Her curvier Capitoline cousins may well snigger at her slender form, yet the Esquiline, who was found in 1847 beneath the Roman hill from which she takes her name, still provides a compelling depiction of Venus, and one of the few portrayals where almost geisha-esque submissiveness surpasses any notion of power.

7) Venus Kallipygos (Roman era, copy of Hellenistic original)
Now we’re talking. The Venus Kallipygos, or ‘Venus with the Beautiful Buttocks’ is one of the more sexual images of the goddess, taken from a risqué Greek original. Though reproduced in several modern guises (one of which, Francois Barois’ 17th century version, conspicuously covers her behind), the only example of antiquity left standing today is a small Roman marble housed in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples. The cheeky Venus (literally) is pictured standing; her bottom exposed by a raised peplos, arching back to stare at her own behind. She is said to symbolise the ancient Syracusan story of two girls who asked a rich suitor who had the better bottom. As such, there is known to have been a cult of Venus Kallipygos at Syracuse whereby priestesses would offer themselves in ritual prostitution. This representation is not only insightful and interesting (and pretty easy on the eye), but also a great example of Venus as a figurehead for sexual love and eroticism.

6) Aphrodite of Cnidus (c350 BC, current copies of Roman origin)
Getting into the realm of more illustrious visions of the goddess, the Aphrodite of Cnidus is widely regarded to be the first monumental nude in classical sculpture. As such, she and her creator, Praxiteles, are themselves interned in the annals of Greek myth and culture. According to the Greek Anthology, on seeing the figure Aphrodite herself remarks, “Where did Praxiteles see me naked?” Praxiteles was commissioned by the people of Kos to sculpt the popular goddess – yet his unclothed account shocked the locals, who instead chose a robed version. The wealthy island of Knidos decided instead to plump for the naked model, putting them on show in a temple in which people celebrated a cult through ritual prostitution. The original was, tragically, destroyed in a 475 AD Constantinopolitan fire; yet replicas abound, the most faithful of which is thought to be the Colonna Knidia, in the Vatican’s Pio-Clementine Museum. She is often called the Venus Pudica (‘Modest Venus’), on account of her covering her genitals with her  right hand (she is the forebear of both the Capitoline Venus and the Venus de’Medici). However the hand placement purposefully posts the viewer’s eye on Venus’ sexuality, a trick which has proven eternally popular for subsequent incarnations.

5) Aphrodite, Pan & Eros (c100 BC)
Sexual harrassment’s no modern creation – just ask Aphrodite. Image by Robert Wallace
She may not be as well known as some of the others in this list, but this Aphrodite is certainly one of the feistiest of the bunch. The Delian marble comprises a confusing mise-en-scene, whereby a besieged Aphrodite attempts to fend off the unwanted advances of a devilish Pan with her sandal. Between the warring pair flies a mischievous Eros who holds one of Pan’s horns. It is unknown, however, whether he’s trying to help the stricken Aphrodite, or egging Pan on in his heinous assault (feel free to insert a, ‘He ain’t worth it, Aphrodi’e’ Eastenders line here). Either way, it is a magnificent piece of sculpture which simultaneously shows Aphrodite as a curvy yet sinewy beauty; her sex eagerly desired by Pan – and as a strong woman capable of his rebuttal. The marble itself is inscribed to a certain ‘Dionysios, son of Zeno, son of Theodoros of Berytus (Beirut)’, and currently takes pride of place in Athens’ National Museum.

4) Venus de’Medici (1st century BC)
One of the most renowned reproductions, the Medici Venus is a Greek copy of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Cnidus, and the cultural reference point from which all successive classical statuary was taken. Its provenance is unknown; the inscriptions etched upon it now thought to be an ancient swindle to enhance its value. Aphrodite stands in a reclusive, almost shocked pose, half-heartedly covering her breasts and genitals with both hands as she swivels to catch a glimpse at something. The dolphin at her feet, which wouldn’t have been included on the bronze original, shows the viewer she has just risen from the sea, as went the popular myth. The Medici is one of the world’s most copied Greek statues, having been the subject of countless drawings, paintings and images, yet its discovery, like its maker, is something of a mystery. It was first noted in the collection at the Villa Medici in Rome – yet now resides in Florence’s famous Uffizi. She may not be the most caustic creation, but the Medici is certainly an influential old girl.

3) The Capitoline Venus (Antonine Roman, c138 – 180 AD)
Like the Medici’s long-lost sister, the Capitoline Venus is another replica of Praxiteles’ Cnidian Aphrodite, who holds her modesty in both hands, albeit unsuccessfully. She’s a big girl, being slightly bigger than life size, and though her stern expression conveys power and confidence, her buxom breasts, flowing locks and voluptuous thighs emphasise a heightened sense of sexuality. In fact her right arm seems only to uphold her chest, rather than make any effort to conceal. Her home is now in the Capitoline Museum’s Palazzo Nuovo, Vatican City, where she commands her own unique corner – ‘The Cabinet of Venus’.  Yet she is a well-travelled goddess, having been taken both to France and Rome in the past few centuries. The Capitoline’s enduring popularity is one borne of her grandeur and sheer size, and the fact that the public became disenchanted with constant tinkering and restoration projects undertaken on the Medici during its early fame. She is thought to be the copy of a Hellenistic original from Asia Minor (modern Turkey), and she continues to seduce crowds with her sensual repose and dominant look.

2) Lely’s Venus (Antonine Roman, c138 – 180 AD)
So called because of the 17th century British-Dutch collector in whose eager hands she found herself briefly, Lely’s lovely is uncharacteristically dramatic; her pose, of the Crouching Venus genre, adding three dimensions to a goddess who, in this list at least, was created largely to be viewed from one angle. Venus hunches, surprised at her bath, and glances back at someone or something that has caught her eye. In doing so she effectively covers her sexual parts which are almost – almost – shielded from view. She has a larger figure than most, with her feet and hands intricately sculpted, presumably to capture the sense of intimacy and reaction in her posture. She could be called Rubenesque, if it weren’t for the fact that she was one of the principle influences on the revered 17th century Flemish artist. Lely’s girl currently resides in London’s British Museum, where she has previously looked back on Marc Quinn’s Gold Kate Moss – in a startling reflection of past versus future. She draws throngs of international crowds to her curves, yet not quite as many as our number one…

1) The Venus de Milo (c120 BC)
She’s one of the world’s most beautiful, popular and mysterious statues – but the Venus de Milo had a somewhat muted history, having only been unearthed from by a Greek peasant named Yorgos Kentrotas in 1820, near the ancient ruins of Milos. It is thought to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch, and remains one of the goddess’ most sexual incarnations – with breasts exposed and a falling robe which partially reveals her bottom. She is famous for her missing arms, one of which would have held the aforementioned apple relating to the Judgement of Paris, the other resting on her raised left knee. Thought today the Milo is widely perceived to be the foremost example of Venus’ beauty, she was in fact the subject of a French propaganda project, following their loss of the Medici Venus in the 19th century.

The Milo’s grace and poise, however, cannot be questioned. Her succinct stance, with the robe apparently in the process of falling from her waist, exudes sensuality whilst retaining a parlance of modesty. In short, the old girl represents what we would traditionally ascribe to sensuality today. She was originally the rope in a giant tug of war between the French and Ottoman Turks, the latter of which executed a translator as a result of its departure. She was subsequently presented to the Louvre by King Louis XVIII in 1821, on which her plinth was unexplainably stolen, further adding to her mystique. She was then handed over to the Louvre, where she continues to stun masses of admirers from all four corners of the world. She may well have been hyped more than an Andy Murray Wimbledon campaign, but the Venus de Milo remains one of the enduring images of classical art, let alone sculpture. She’s a goddess, no doubt about it.